Book Review: Tales of Special Needs Abroad

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The Cultural Detective team is proud to share with you a guest blog post by Kathi Silva, author of an extraordinary new book entitled, Extraordinary Experiences: Tales of Special Needs Abroad, 249 pages.

Experiencing another culture is meant to be fun, adventurous, and mind-opening. But what happens when you mix the joys of living or traveling abroad with the struggles of having a physical, intellectual, medical, or other special need?

In 2015, our family prepared for our sixth international move, knowing that images and realities do not always agree. We moved to the tiny South American country of Uruguay expecting to be limited with ways to support our twins on the autism spectrum, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that in Uruguay’s harmonious culture with its emphasis on social relationships, our twins were embraced, understood, and even admired. At that point in their development, they didn’t need structured speech and occupational therapy as in years past, but they did need positive interactions with people. For example, rather than working with a certified occupational therapist, we found Sebastián — an amazing Uruguayan personal trainer who had my twins running wacky obstacle courses, tossing weighted balls and playing agility games on the beach.  The twins loved these training sessions, and Sebastián became a mentor and a big part of why we loved Uruguay. I realized that just because a country doesn’t have top-notch services, it doesn’t mean it won’t be a good fit for my children.

And from there, the idea for a book came to me. I wondered if others had the same sense of curiosity as I did as to whether countries and cultures, regardless of how “developed” or not they are, can be receptive to expats with special needs. I hoped to find common denominators – clues – to help me determine if a country we were considering would not only provide the services my special-needs children require, but would have the right formula in other ways to make it a successful move for us. Would the culture be patient, tolerant and kind to my quirky kids? Would I find the resources I needed to meet my children’s physical, emotional, and social needs? Would the medical professionals share my values and goals for my children? Would the expat community surrounding me be supportive?

It took over three years and many hours of work to bring such a special collection of stories together into book form. Now I know I’m not alone in wanting to share the news that the world provides us with more open doors than closed ones. While there’s no way to guarantee our overseas adventures will always be good, there are things we can do and ways we can approach our experiences living or traveling overseas with special needs.

Extraordinary Experiences: Tales of Special Needs Abroad is not a how-to manual, but a book of real-life experiences in which you will find inspiration, guidance and insights from ordinary people who have made extraordinary adjustments to their experiences far from home.  I believe that every reader can gain something within these pages, whether it be the insight they’re looking for, the sense that there is a tribe of like-minded people who believe a disability doesn’t have to hold them back, or just some good, heartfelt stories from a distinctive population of expats.

The book is available through Amazon in paperback or Kindle format and all proceeds go to the non-profit organization Tales from a Small Planet.

Kathi Silva grew up in Texas with a fascination for other cultures. In addition to advocating for inclusion and quality of life issues for her children and others with special needs, she works as a freelance editor while completing her master’s degree in education. She is proud of the small seeds of kindness and light she and her family have planted wherever they go, and is grateful that her children have taught her how truly beautiful diversity can be. She has lived most of her adult life overseas in Ecuador, France, South Africa, Venezuela, Serbia, Uruguay, and Uganda.  

She’s Been in 68 Countries in 21 Years

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I have been fascinated with CarouLLou ever since I met her online about a year ago. She and her husband have been global nomads together for 21 years (and on their own before that). They are, however, unlike any other global nomad I have ever met. Initially they would live two years in a given location—fairly normal, expatriate-type stuff. Over the years, however, as the internet came into being, as communication became easier, as it became possible to rent furnished apartments online, and as visas became more complicated (e.g., non-EU citizens may stay in Europe for six month per year, but only three months in a six-month period), CarouLLou and her “mystery photographer” became more and more nomadic, living in each location for shorter and shorter periods of time. Nowadays, they often stay in a place one-to-three months.

Do they feel like tourists? Well, they do some touristy things; they see the sights, particularly when a place is new to them. But, that place, at that time, is their home. Their only home. What they love is feeling like locals: eating where locals eat, discovering hidden treasures that only locals know about, and doing things even locals wish they could do.

Sound familiar? I know it’s true for me, and I’m confident it’s true for many of you readers as well. How often have we been told we are more Japanese or Mexican than many born to that nationality? Untrue, of course; a metaphor, of course—but a compliment that reflects a desire on the part of the global nomad to put ourselves in the shoes of other people.

In the video below, CarouLLou answers my question about feeling like a tourist vs. being “at home,” what home means to her, and she tells us an interesting story about their life in Venice.

Why do CarouLLou and her husband choose this lifestyle? Isn’t it difficult? It surely isn’t “normal”! To hear her tell it, the global nomadic life is almost addictive, with the constant stimulation of new experiences and learning. Below she explains why they live the way they do, and the advantages and downsides of their extreme global nomad lifestyle.

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Photo courtesy CarouLLou. Click on the photo to learn her packing tips!

CarouLLou and her love travel with one medium-sized suitcase and one carry-on each—65 kilos of luggage. Remember, those suitcases contain everything they own. It definitely puts the quantity of “things” I have in my 3-bedroom condominium to shame. And my stuff has been actively downsized for several years now! So many of us want to live simpler, lighter lives. CarouLLou definitely lives lighter, if not simpler, than most of us.

I am fascinated that all her belongings fit in one medium-sized suitcase and a carry-on, because CarouLLou always looks so gorgeous, so put-together, and so in her element—whether she is in Mexico City, Tokyo or Rome. How in the world does a woman look that great and own so few pieces of clothing and accessories? Her response seems a good guide for many of us.

I well know that the life of an entrepreneur, local or global, can get lonely and isolated if we’re not careful. We don’t have an office full of people to work with everyday, so we have to reach out and actively build community more than some others. The very creative CarouLLou found an innovative way to connect with like-minded people in new cities in which she lives: “brainstorm lunches.” Click on the link to read a full article about these, or view the video clip below to hear her talk about the fit between treasuring friends and family, and the life of a global nomad.

CarouLLou speaks four languages, but obviously she has visited a lot of places in which she doesn’t speak the language of the place. How does she get along? I asked her to share some tips with us on how to communicate and get what we need when we don’t speak the local language.

There are so very many countries in the world, and even though CarouLLou and her husband choose to live mostly in metropolises, how do they choose where to live next? How do they decide whether to go to a new place or revisit a previous “home”? And how do they agree? I love her answer; based on decades of experience, it provides a sound guide for any traveller or sojourner.

Are you curious to know whether, after 21 years of nomadic life, CarouLLou still experiences culture shock? Here is what she says about this challenge.

The Facts This couple has been in 68 countries by the UN nation-count, 82 countries according to the “Travelers’ Century Club.” They like urban areas, and tend to travel East to West, following the seasons. They have twelve or so absolute favorite cities in which they feel at “home” and revisit regularly, and they rotate favorite places with places they’ve never before been to.

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Photo courtesy CarouLLou

In 1994, CarouLLou and her husband began traveling, subletting their Montreal apartment, but in 1996 they announced to their family and friends that they were “jumping into the unknown!” They sold all of their belongings—minus a couple of suitcases full of personal items—and a FAX machine—to make their home portable.

How does CarouLLou support herself? She became “location independent” years ago with her marketing business, and then with her coaching business, because she could meet with her clients via fax and phone. (CarouLLou actually gave her clients and collaborators prepaid phone cards so they wouldn’t incur extra charges to communicate with her; how fast technology has changed!) She got her first email in 1998—quite late to the technology world, in my global nomad experience—and started a few online businesses as well as a photo site for her family and friends.

Currently, CarouLLou provides consulting on life potential, for start-up businesses, and marketing strategies, has several websites, some information funded by publicity, and others with affiliate partnerships (among them her travel site, as well as hotel booking and apartment booking sites). She loves fashion; in her blog and Facebook photos she always looks perfectly put together, and her looks are her own, yet change with each city in which she lives. She also has an online jewelry store to enable us to share some of her “finds,” and shares her inspired “looks” for various cities and sells clothes online. She is an investor, engages in currency trading, and has passive income from international organizations she’s set up over the years. CarouLLou also has several paper.li papers: Style, Nomads, and Travel.

Her philosophy includes:

  • “When we travel with an open heart, our world is full of hearts.”
  • “Don’t try to spend less, try to find ideas to make more! The more you spend, the more people benefit.”
  • “Remember the word currency comes from ‘current,’ so be in the current!”
  • “Work a little everyday, and do something special every day… and you will feel on vacation all your life!”

You can subscribe to CarouLLou’s blog, or follow her on most every social media. Like Cultural Detective, she has about 20,000 followers on social media, and she definitely shares our passion for cultural diversity and competence.

Today’s Cultural Defective: A Humorous Short Story

ImageThe past few weeks our family has been busy traveling around visiting universities with our son, who will be a senior in high school as of next week, as well as visiting family and, of course, working in between. Many thanks to all our wonderful guest bloggers who contributed posts during this time.

We are home again, and I thought you might enjoy a humorous “Cultural Defective” or cultural misstep story that happened to us upon our return. The guard, our neighbor, and our family had a good chuckle over it. Hopefully we’ll be a bit clearer in our communication with our building staff going forward, but more importantly, we gained a better understanding of our own worldview and that of the people working in our building. Here’s the story:

We live in a large condominium building. We receive a newspaper delivered to our door every day. Normally when we leave town, we tell the building staff that they are welcome to keep and read our paper while we are gone, and that we don’t need them back. It tends to be much easier and less confusing than starting and stopping delivery, and the staff enjoys the small perk. This time, however, our neighbor was in town, so we invited him to take and read our paper every day while we were gone.

Today, one of our building guards showed up at our door with a huge stack of newspapers. He most kindly explained to us that someone had been stealing our newspaper every day while we were gone (we live on a floor with three other families). Therefore, the staff had decided to hold the papers in the office, to guard them, and give them to us upon our return.

I guess we should have communicated our plans with the building staff more clearly. This was certainly nothing I would have expected. I do hope that at least the staff read them!

To me this incident is refreshing in that it didn’t really harm anyone, as many cross-cultural misunderstandings unfortunately do. However, I’m sure if confused our neighbor (why has newspaper delivery stopped?)!
If we take a bit of time to apply the Cultural Detective Method, we can easily see the value differences it illustrates:
  • The value placed upon a daily newspaper delivery—a luxury available to professionals, but beyond the reach of a laborer here in western Mexico.
  • Feelings of protectiveness and responsibility—the building guards are accustomed to a huge status differential; they don’t want to do anything that might disappoint a homeowner, or that an owner might accuse them of doing incorrectly. They were protecting us, and they were protecting themselves.

In my worldview, it never occurred to me that an owner might want six weeks of newspapers saved. Also, I have a different the sense of responsibility than our guards have. I might figure, “Hey, if the lady didn’t tell me to save her papers for her, or what to do with them while she is gone, I can’t be responsible.”

Of course, it could also have been that the guards really wanted their few weeks of leisurely newspaper reading, and resented an owner (our neighbor) taking what would otherwise be theirs, but I really don’t think that’s what happened. They just figured we’d forgotten about our paper, and that a neighbor was taking advantage of our absence. And, they did the right thing—they protected us.

This is just a small, humorous story of daily life as an expat, and how easily any of us can jump to negative conclusions. Or, if we take a few moments to reflect on our missteps, we can gain insight about ourselves, others, and living together enjoyably.

We have such a wide range of readers—I’ll bet many of you have similar anecdotes of unintended consequences to your actions (or lack of action) as you have navigated life in a foreign culture. We’d be delighted to hear your “Cultural Defective” stories and the insights you gained through the experiences.